Curtis Opera Theatre in partnership with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts presented its students in a staged production of Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni at the Perelman Theater on March 7, 8, 9, and 10.
There were two casts performing in rotation. The cast seen on Saturday, March 9, was: Adam Kiss as Leporello; Tiffany Townsend, Donna Anna; Dennis Chmelensky, Don Giovanni; Vartan Gabrielian, the Commendatore; Aaron Crouch, Don Ottavio; Masetto, Charles Buttigieg; Lindsey Reynolds, Zerlina, and a last-minute cast change for Donna Elvira, Sophia Hunt. All the singers sang well. A few singers may even be ready for a professional career here in the United States and internationally. The student orchestra played beautifully, conducted with verve and elan by Ms. Canellakis. The problems lay solely with the production design and costumes.
Adam Kiss as Leporello was outstanding. He commanded the stage with presence and fine singing. Mr. Kiss (as did others in this production) triumphed over incoherent direction which made them sing under the most inhospitable conditions. Mr. Kiss as Leporello, for instance, was at one point required to drag himself from the wings to center stage while lying down using only his elbows before launching into an aria. When Leporello exchanged clothes with his master, Mr. Kiss looked dashing in his Pierrot costume. It was the best-looking costume that evening. As Don Giovanni, Dennis Chmelensky was a poetic, lithe seducer. This was refreshing to see, since most Giovannis are often much older. He was often instructed to push pianos around the stage while singing. When not moving things about, this Don Giovanni had to climb up and down console pianos, which populated the stage for no good reason. Mr. Schlather then had Mr. Chelensky smear makeup on his face to resemble Shari Lewis’ Lamb Chop. This evening’s Donna Elvira, although hampered by a most ridiculous costume sang very finely indeed. It was a pity for her and for us. R. B. Schlather, the stage director and costume designer, covered Ms. Hunt in rags more appropriate to a circus performer seen through an LSD flashback of a Noh drama. She may have escaped from Curlew River. The sophomoric joke was playing off a line which Don Giovanni sings that he can smell the scent of a woman. The director made Donna Elvira enter then as a bag lady carrying several large bags everywhere for far too long. The audience laughed. The audience shouldn’t laugh at Donna Elvira’s entrance. Adding insult to ridicule, the fine baritone Charles Buttigieg (no one knew if he was related to the Presidential candidate who shares the last surname) sang splendidly as Masetto while hampered with his own cross to bear. Mr. Schlather as costume designer decided to dress Masetto as Little Bo Peep for no apparent reason. He was later stripped down to a spaghetti-strapped silk charmeuse slip. Ms. Reynolds as Zerlina wore a Grecian tunic with a tortured headdress of ferns and branches which made her appear to be part of an approaching Birnham Wood. Nevertheless, Ms. Reynolds acquitted herself nobly, singing a spectacular Zerlina.
In his “Note from the Director,” Mr. Schlather wrote about the MeToo movement and how Don Giovanni fits into this rhetoric. He felt the need to explain why a world classic like Don Giovanni shouldn’t be relegated to the dustbin, since its storyline is hardly politically correct today. To his credit, he does call Don Giovanni a masterpiece, yet still is uneasy about it being such.
If we are to apply such anachronistic thinking to all acknowledged masterpieces, we would be allowed very few to enjoy by the thought police. For example: Othello? No. La Traviata? Certainly not. La Boheme? No. Romeo and Juliet? Hardly. The list and the arguments could go on for hours. Even Giselle was questioned recently in an article in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s program as an evil which should no longer be seen. Some may think we should all join in a modern Purge of the Vanities, as did Savonarola in fifteenth-century Florence. To entertain such thinking, we would have to join with our friends who ban books such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Don Giovanni is a story of a fictional character who invites a statue to dinner which arrives only to drag the reprobate to Hell. Don Giovanni’s grandeur is in the music, and for that we should be forever grateful.
Visit the Curtis website at www.curtis.edu for future events. For example, Curtis will present a double bill in May with Opera Philadelphia at the Perelman with Ralph Vaughan William’s Riders to the Sea and Empty the House, a commissioned work by Rene Orth.
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